Tag Archives: assimilation

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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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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What My American Grandmother Said

by Herbert J. Levine (Sarasota, FL)

That she had come to this country from the Austro-Hungarian empire at age two,

that her mother ‘s Viennese relatives were cousins of Theodor Herzl,

that her step-mother felt jealous of her good looks,

that she had become a Suffragette at age sixteen and raised money for the cause selling flowers on the Boston Common,

that the grandson of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow had been smitten with her appearance as Isaiah’s wife at a play at the West End YMHA,

that he had asked her to marry him on the spot, saying “my grandfather the poet loved your people,”

that she had replied, “Well my father doesn’t love yours,” 

that she married an American-born man twelve years her senior,

that she and her husband embraced whenever they met one another in whatever room of the house it was,

that it took her seven years after she married at nineteen to realize that she could get on top,

that she had gone every Sunday night to the Ford Hall Forum to hear visiting intellectuals who lectured on every topic under the sun,

that she had practiced saying, “every day, in every way, I’m getting better and better,” as one of them had advised,

that her sister who lived upstairs once said, “Rosie, what are you constipating to do?”

that there was nothing more beautiful than the sunset seen through her kitchen window,

that she lived as a widow forty-two years after Hyman‘s death, half of those working for the Federal government,

that the buses she took to work were designed for making friends with her neighbors,

that if you don’t own a car, it’s very important to befriend people who do,

that rush tickets at Symphony Hall were half-price for Friday afternoon rehearsals,

that there was nothing better for the spirit when visiting historic sites than saying “I love America!”

that it was important for young people to cultivate a sense of intimacy – she had been reading Erik Erikson at the time –

that she would never live long enough to use that bottle of one thousand buffered aspirin that I bought her,

that she left to her children and grandchildren her love of the sun and the moon and the stars and the sky

that she would spend her money before she died, which she did not, 

that I should say at her funeral that every morning she recited the Twenty-Third Psalm, but not until after she had eaten her bagel.

Herbert Levine is the author of two books of bi-lingual poetry, Words for Blessing the World (2017) and An Added Soul: Poems for a New Old Religion (2020). He is currently working on a humanist and earth-based prayer book: Blessed Are You, World: A Siddur for our Time. This is the fifth of his family portraits shared on the Jewish Writing Project. To learn more about Herb and his work, visit:https://benyehudapress.com/books/words-blessing-world/

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The Summers of My Golden Ghetto

by William Levine (Belmont, MA)

A stranger driving through the tree-lined streets of Oak Hill village (AKA “the golden ghetto”) in Newton, MA during the summers of the 1960’s would eventually reach the startling conclusion that all school-age children had vanished. In place of these kids laughing on well-trimmed lawns were the mechanical whooshes of sprinklers. Indeed, most of us were sent out of town by the kosher meal promises of summer camp proprietors amid the standard sports and craft camp activities. My last summer in town was 1959, and I didn’t return until 1969. Only in my teenage summers at Camp Manitou from 1964-1968 was I mature enough to see my camp experience through the prism of my Jewishness.

Manitou was in the Belgrade Lakes region of Maine (Oakland, to be exact). In my ever-discerning teenage mind, I was able to sum up the Manitou experience as just moving with my Jewish enclave of Oak Hill to the Maine woods. The fact was that a majority of the campers lived within a two-mile radius of the owner’s home, myself included.  The camp’s pied-piper spiel to us kids was that all our friends were spending the summer diving into Manitou’s East Lake. My first year in 1964, nine of the ten campers in my bunk were from my junior high school. To get an idea of Manitou’s clannishness, one has to ask the question: How Jewish was Oak Hill?

Well, it was so Jewish that my second-grade class composite of Mrs. Sriberg’s class features 24.5 Jewish faces out of 26 students. The holiday season showed how Jewish the neighborhood was in a most tangible way. All of us Oak Hillers observed the phenomenon of The Festival of No Lights in our extended neighborhoods at Christmas-time.  As passengers in our family sedans, we drove down one street after another with no Christmas lights. It was as if there was a localized power outage in Oak Hill for the whole Christmas season. 

In my tween-age years, my parents explained why we lived in the land of No Christmas Lights. They extolled Oak Hill as being a neighborhood beyond the pale of anti-Semitism and home to a clannishness that we could all value. I realized that we weren’t corralled into Oak Hill village. But it didn’t hurt to build a Jewish fence to insulate us from the goyish world, at least somewhat. Even so, I felt awkward about the “golden ghetto” because we were also very American kids. 

For us Manitou boys, summer camp in the 1960s meant just moving our Oak Hill enclave to Camp Manitou in Oakland, Maine. Despite it’s totally Jewish clientele, the camp was foremost a traditionally competitive all-American athletic camp. Its grounds, bordered by woods, were cleared for sports ranging from archery to volleyball. The waterfront was mostly for instruction, but it also hosted several swim meets. Running these activities was an energetic, middle-aged, Jewish head counselor who had earned twelve letters in college.   

That the Jewishness of the camp was a distant second to sports was fine with me, although for eight weeks of the year my religiosity was stretched even by the low-key camp observances. At home my family was not at all kosher, especially with a dispensation at Chinese restaurants. But, overall, I had no qualms about the food that we dug into after we recited the blessing with makeshift napkin yarmulkas. Fruit punch (jokingly called bug-juice) was okay with meat as a milk substitute.

Friday night services were held in the rec hall that housed most indoor activities, so there was no worshipping in a sylvan clearing. Services were the worst evening activity in my book. There was nothing to look forward to after we finished supper on Friday night. I believe a counselor ran the half-hour Reform service. There was no heavy religious lifting—literally. We used mimeographed sheets rather than bulky prayer books. There were always a couple of prayers, mostly in English, followed by a counselor sermon, and then—the best part—a few Israeli songs, including a rousing Zum Gali Gali with an ear-shattering final ZUM.  While I did feel that I was participating with my bunkmates in a mandatory boring event every Friday, I do think the services ameliorated the sheepishness I’d felt over having no family tradition of Friday night services. My family was just high holiday attendees. Thus, the summer observance squared up religiosity with my cultural and ethnic identity.

Non-religiously, as I mentioned, my summer camp experience was just a cultural, reinforcement of the rest of my year’s existence in Oak Hill. This extra two months of an all-Jewish world honed a sense of clannishness. Camp was a place where, after lights out, we would rehash the highlights from past bar mitzvah seasons and muse on the sexiest girls at our sister camp, Matoaka, across the lake, with identical demographics. On the ball field, any kid who displayed anger was labeled as a “putz” or “schmuck.” No one had to look up the meaning.    

A mitigation against the Jewishness of Manitou was the staff make-up. Maybe half the counselors at camp were gentile. Ironically, while Manitou promised our fathers an extension of Oak Hill, many of the camp’s father-figures were not Jewish. This demographic was not a plus for me, but then there was Dave, a gentile counselor from Maine. Dave always seemed to have a good word for me and we enjoyed each other’s humor. I remember once, while dressing for an inter-camp dance, I had trouble tying a necktie. Dave came over and, without commenting on my woeful dexterity, said, “Here, let me help you.” So, really, though Manitou was essentially a hotbed of Jewishness, I did establish positive glimpses of the other 98%. 

A year after my junior counselor summer at Manitou, I graduated from high school, along with three Silvermans, four Levins, and eight Cohens. After “Zonderman” was called, I had to own-up to the fact that my time in the “bubalah bubble” of Oak Hill and Manitou was over. In a couple of months, I would be, for better or worse, in the non-Jewish real word. The real world would ironically start for me at Colby College, only about five miles from the ethnic cocoon of summers past at Manitou. Colby was my preferred school, small in size and large in academic reputation. But it was Colby’s gentile aura that concerned me almost as much as the rigor of its academics.

I correctly anticipated, though, that the familiarity with ins-and-outs of Central Maine would help with my freshman jitteriness. I came to school familiar with Maine accents, local ice cream hangouts, and the local dive bars. This tinge of townie familiarity, plus the lack of home-sickness immunized by nine years of Jewish overnight camps, ameliorated some of my real-world-launching fears. 

At any rate, when I arrived at Colby’s classic hilltop campus, I was hoping there would be a mini-Oak Hill available in the form of a Jewish-based frat. But I found that there was only one frat that had even a decent minority of Jewish students. After this disappointment, I eventually found warm feelings of assimilation in the frozen tundra of Central Maine. There were a few unsettling moments when offensive Jewish jokes were uttered, and there was some awkwardness when I was wished a merry Christmas.  But I really feel that I had the best of both worlds forging my identity in Jewish Oak Hill and Manitou. I was able to keep my robust Jewishness even as I assimilated into a world where Christmas lights were proudly strung and Hanukah was a holiday that couldn’t hold a candle to Noel’s popularity.

Bill Levine is a retired IT professional and an active freelance writer residing in Belmont  MA.  He attended Jewish Summer camps for nine years and gradually came to prefer fruit punch with meat instead of milk.

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One-two-three

by Rita Plush (New York, NY)

A short muscular man, Adler elevator shoes his footwear of choice, my father liked to have the last word. Actually, he liked to have every word, not only with my mother and me, but with the world at large; he dispensed his unsolicited opinions at will and with abandon. Boundaries? My father? 

It gets around that a relative is contemplating a divorce. He’s on the phone in a heartbeat speechifying that marriage takes work (ask my mother about that!). A neighbor is trying for a baby. He holds forth on everything from birth deformities to breastfeeding. Doesn’t matter who, give him half a chance to interfere, he’s on it like a smile on Liberace. 

Enter his mother, my grandmotherthe only person who could zip his lip, the one he took advice from, instead of giving to. 

Short like my father, feet so small she bought her shoes in the children’s department. A pint-sized woman, she spoke mostly Yiddish, and when she talked to my father in that furious pitch and rhythm of the mother tongue, she was an Amazon in Mary Janes. Yes, mommy; yes, mommy, to whatever she said, my father became a six-year old boy. 

That six-year old was worried big-time when my brother was getting married and my father learned shrimp was on the wedding menu (shell fish is verboten under Jewish law). My grandmother kept kosher in her home and outside of it; if she got wind her grandson’s wedding was serving non-kosher food, Oy vey! wouldn’t begin to tell it. 

His solution: hightail it to the caterer and offer him money on the sly to make the big event kosher. It did not occur to my father that his visit was unseemly, and that the caterer would refuse his bribe, and the in-laws who were hosting the affair would find out. 

The big day arrived. Some fancy footwork was in order.  

“Let’s dance, Ma,” he said, and waltzed her tiny feet far from the seafood table. One-two-three, one-two-three. “Vau iz der lox,” she said. Where’s the lox? “Later, Ma.” One-two-threeBut try as he might to shift her away from the crustaceous creatures, he was no match for my grandmother. 

“Dos iz nisht keyn kehshr.” This is not a kosher affair, she said and pulled a knowing face. 

“It isn’t?!” my father said, all innocence, sweating in his rented tuxedo. 

Rita Plush is the author of the novels, Lily Steps Out and Feminine Products, and the short story collection, Alterations. She is the book reviewer for Fire Island News, and teaches memoir, Continuing Education, Queensborough Community College. If you’d like to learn more about Rita and her work, visit: https://ritaplush.com

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Names Matter

by Marden Paru (Sarasota, FL)

All my life I’ve faced two commonly asked questions about the origin of my unusual names: What kind of names are Marden and Paru? And what are their nationality and/or derivation?

Believe it or not, the name Paru came from my Zayde Shlomo, who was a tailor by profession. He was given the concession to custom-make the first fliers’ uniforms—fleece-lined leather jackets and caps. You may have seen them in depictions of dogfights in movies about the early history of aviation and during WWI.

Zayde Shlomo worked outside of Vilna at the first Lithuanian airdrome in a town called Parubanic. When in the early part of the 20th century Jews were still adopting surnames, my paternal grandfather took on the name of the airport site, Parubanic, and added the Polish-Russian “sky.” 

My father was a mohel and, therefore, compelled to circumcise his old European, Polish-Russian-sounding surname from Parubansky to Paru.

As it turns out, Paru is the first commandment that God gave to Adam and Eve—“Be Fruitful and multiply—Paru Urvoo”—in the opening chapters of the Bible.

So, it was always easy to spell my legally-changed last name.

My name, Marden, came to me in a slightly different way. When Mom was pregnant with me, she passed a large neon sign on the Palisades of New Jersey—Ben Marden’s Riviera—the famous night club where the “mob” allegedly hung out in the 30s and 40s. 

As it turned out, Marden is an old English surname. 

Mother reasoned that if I were to be born a male, I would be given the name of my maternal great grandfather—her Zayde Mordechai. But being a young American, she considered English “M’ names such as Martin or Maurice, and finally settled on Marden as an unusual appellation for her first-born male child.

So, in answer to those two questions, I’m named after an airport and a nightclub. That is the emes—Hebrew for the naked truth!

But the story about my name continues. As a boy growing up in Phoenix, Arizona, I answered to a front porch geshrei (a yell) of “Mordechai”—my Hebrew name and the hero of the Purim story in Megillat Esther. When Mom would call me home for dinner (I was playing ball across the street at my new school), the kids heard “motorcar,” and that became my playground handle. “Motorcar” was not far-fetched since Phoenix had trolleys or street cars running on 5th Avenue perpendicular to our street in those days.

And when Dad called me Mordechai, some kids heard “Mortify” and that became my nickname on the block. 

I finally settled on Mordy, which I used until I met my future father-in-law—Milton Milan Kemeny—who took a liking to me and my legal name, Marden. 

Upon his advice—and for professional reasons—I have gone by the name Marden ever since, with the exception of my family and friends from my childhood who still refer to me as Mordy.

Marden Paru is currently the Dean, Rosh Yeshiva and co-founder of the Sarasota Liberal Yeshiva, an adult Jewish studies institute, and a  former instructor at the Sarasota-Manatee Jewish Federation’s Melton Adult Mini-School. He attended Yeshiva University, the University of Tulsa, and the University of Chicago, and was a doctoral fellow and faculty member at Brandeis University. Marden and his wife Joan are members of Temple Beth Sholom and Congregation Kol HaNeshama. To read more about Marden and Joan, visit: https://www.brandeis.edu/hornstein/news/newsletter/Hornstein-alumni-articles/My-1966-Computer-Arranged-Jewish-Marriage-by-Marden-Paru.html

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Assimilation

by Jennifer A. Minotti (Cambridge, MA)

Looking back, my Ethiopian orphaned daughter acclimated fairly quickly to our life in Vermont, set amid colorful foliage and our blue-blooded friends. Surely, once she got situated, she started to protest her differences, but that was to be expected. First, she attempted to scrub off her dark skin in the bathtub, like filth. Next, she objected to her new name, one I gave her in honor of my deceased Russian grandmother, not hers. Finally, she took to imitating her older brother, perceiving him as Golden Child in biological position and genetic makeup. She was probably right. Yet over time, I don’t know how long, I think she finally accepted her fate and her dissimilarities. Adopted. Black. Girl. Later, she would come to appreciate her rightful position in our family as Daughter. Sister. Loved.  

I, on the other hand, never fully reintegrated into this patrician town after the week I spent in Africa. Quail eggs and Prosecco were no longer palatable. I, too, had been forced to assimilate at an early age. Growing up, I wasn’t told to assimilate, but it was implied. We were already different in our predominantly small, Catholic town. Jewish. Divorced. Female.

“Don’t tell anyone your father left,” my Holocaust-surviving mother implored. And so I didn’t. I lied, mostly to deceive myself. I worked hard. I became Successful. Happy. Envied. I Fit In.

So I reminded my daughter, nearly every night, not to shove when she ate. “Slow down,” I would say, tasting sourness in the back of my throat. I repeated this mostly because it was simply good etiquette. But really it was because I didn’t want her to feel different. Second-rate. Dirty, which was her perception, not mine. I wanted her to Fit In. I repeated that she had to do better, be better, because she was Black. Jewish. Female. I thought, I’m giving her good advice.

Except that I hated always trying to fit in. Still do. I feel trapped by assimilation, a rigged system anyway. I feel asphyxiated by my own accomplishments because, no matter how much I achieve, people still see me as Jewish. Female. Why not claim my Jewishness, I ask myself. My Femaleness. Why struggle to Fit In to a male, Christian-dominated system that will never fully admit me anyway?

Which is why I change my mind. I decide I need to claim my differences and so does my daughter. I need to break the cycle of assimilation in our family, because it doesn’t work anyway. I now tell my daughter, Stay true to Yourself. You’re Gorgeous as you are. Love your Beautiful Black Skin. Be proud of your Multiple Identities. I tell my daughter these things, not just because it’s good parenting, but also for its truth. I repeat these things daily, because after years of conformity I, too, need to hear them.

Jennifer A. Minotti is an Artist in Residence at the Center for Women’s Health and Human Rights at Suffolk University and a PhD candidate at Lesley University.  She is the Founder of the Women’s Writing Circle and is the Co-Creator of The World’s Very First Gratitude Parade. A graduate of Boston University (B.S.) and Columbia University (M.A., M.Ed), she is a descendant of the famous Soloveitchik rabbinic dynasty. She lives in Cambridge, MA with her family, where she studies Judaism weekly with her Partner in Torah.

 

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Semitic Semantics

by Gelia Dolcimascolo (Atlanta, GA)

On the day before Rosh Hashanah
I do nothing
to commemorate
the start of the New Year.

The Orthodox Jewish teenager
from across the cul-de-sac
greets me with her laptop, some papers,
and a question mark on her face.

We sit side-by-side in my dining room,
like two candles, backs to the cabinet
which holds my parents’ menorah
and the book I am reading, Unorthodox.

We work out rhyme schemes
for odes and ballads,
discuss the rhythm of heartbeats.
A smile replaces the question mark.

On Rosh Hashanah
I celebrate
by dancing
at the ballet studio.

That night my Episcopalian neighbor
joins us for dinner at our house.
With a wink of his eye, he says I’m not a Jew
simply because I don’t “practice the faith.”

We wrestle over that one.
My fists clench in faux anger;
I straighten him out,
defend my right to the tribe.

Gelia Dolcimascolo, an award-winning poet, is a writing tutor at Georgia State University Perimeter College. Her poems have been published in journals, anthologies, and books, including Heart by Heart: Mothers and Daughters Listening to Each Other; Through a Distant Lens; The Art of Music; and Haiku Pix Review. Her novella, Aurelia and the Library of the Soul, a nominee for the Georgia Author of the Year Award (GAYA), was published in 2016. Born in South Africa, she grew up in Queens, New York, and lived with her husband and daughter in California. She considers herself a “nostalgic” (secular) Jew and enjoys her cultural heritage at the Marcus Jewish Community Center of Atlanta. Her website is www.geliawrites.com

About her poem, “Semitic Semantics,” she writes that it “reflects my views as a non-religious Jew. I sometimes find myself defending my cultural heritage while isolated from mainstream Judaism – an existential dilemma. The poem takes place in Atlanta, roughly a decade ago.”

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Rescuing The Past

By Sheldon P Hersh (Lawrence, NY)

At a recent tag sale, I happened upon an item that just didn’t seem to belong there.

The sale took place at a small, non-descript house that stood out in sharp contrast to every other home on the street. Flakes of peeling paint littered the walkway and elongated weeds stood at solemn attention in the narrow front yard. A bold white and red sign proclaiming “Tag Sale Today was affixed to the porch and, within no time at all, brought forth a gush of interested opportunists in search of a good buy. I happened to be in the area and decided to stop and take a peek.

A wobbly screen door let out a high-pitched screech as I entered the premises. Once inside, I found myself transported back in time. There had been little if any updating over the years. What had been purchased sixty or seventy years ago now lay scattered about in every direction waiting to be pushed, poked and squeezed by a multitude of inquisitive fingers.

Initially, there was very little that caught my eye, but, upon entering the kitchen, I couldn’t help but notice a black and white photograph that seemed to be out of place. It lay partially covered by some old books and faded documents that had been carelessly tossed onto an old wooden table. In a dented tarnished metal frame was the picture of a solemn man dressed in what was likely his Sabbath attire. His distinctive cap and long unruly beard identified him as an observant Jew who, more than likely, had resided somewhere in Eastern Europe generations earlier. His sad eyes and resolute face immediately caught my attention. It was a face that could have served as the ideal cover for a book containing stories of a difficult existence in a far off place filled with conflict, tumult and hardship. The man in the photograph was silent but I could sense his strength and determination, and his desire to free himself from the past.

After picking up the picture, I asked the middle-aged fellow who was in charge of the sale if he knew the identity of the man in the photograph. “I think it was my wife’s grandfather,” he answered indifferently. “You see, this house belonged to her father, and, after his death, we decided it was time to empty the place of his belongings before we put the house on the market. My wife is fairly certain that the man with the beard was her father’s father. The photo was taken way back when in the old country. We have no use for it so if you want it, I’ll throw in the picture if you decide to buy anything else.”

Rather than have it end up in the trash, I bought a small-framed etching that I really had no use for and left with the picture pressed firmly to my side.

After getting into the car to head home, I glanced over at the front passenger seat where the picture lay and got to thinking about how little family photographs and mementos mean to some people. After all, this was more than likely her grandfather, the one person who was a critical link in a long chain of family members who played a role in her being here. There was not the slightest reservation about disposing of the only photograph that she possessed of her grandfather. It also got me to thinking about all of the other personal or religious items belonging to departed loved ones that so often appear at tag sales.

Elderly parents or grandparents may have kept personal mementos and prized religious items hidden in a drawer or cabinet and would, with the utmost respect and adoration, take them in hand during holidays, family events and special occasions. After loved ones pass on, children suddenly abandon old photographs, prayer books, prayer shawls, and other ceremonial items, and grandchildren feel no attachment to what are viewed as meaningless outdated relics.

The picture got me to thinking about how easy it is for some of us to jettison our history, our culture and, yes, our own identities. The man in the photograph was on a mission. It’s as though he came here to remind me that, like it or not, we can never escape from the past.

We must never forget who we are.

To this day, I don’t know his name but he resides in a new frame that hangs on the wall as you enter my home.

“Who’s the man with the beard?” a number of visitors have asked while pointing to the picture on the wall.

“I have no idea,” I reply, “but he belongs here, he just belongs here.”

Sheldon P. Hersh, an Ear, Nose and Throat Physician with a practice in the New York metropolitan area, is the author of Our Frozen Tears (http://tinyurl.com/kuzlscb), as well as the co-author of The Bugs Are Burning, a book on the Holocaust.

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Understanding My Roots

by Ronni Miller (Sarasota, FL) 

“Flexibility is Jewish survival…the rabbis may inveigh against assimilation, but it’s why we’ve survived for six thousand years.  We assimilate, but we still keep our pride of identity. And we keep our holy books.”  from Inventing Memory by Erica Jong

Why is my favorite word.  What is a close second.  Why is it important for me to know when I became aware of my Jewishness? What were the important circumstances that caused this to happen? And why have I chosen to adhere to my roots?

I run the tape of my memory backward to find answers and see a winter morning when my father escorted me, a seven year old, up a flight of dark stairs above a restaurant to a shul (a new word for me) in Irvington, New Jersey. The room was filled with children. There was a strong odor of chicken. Waiting for us was a man dressed in black.  

I was resistant to this new adventure. My mother had told me “it will be good for you” (a phrase already suspect since she had told me raw eggs in a glass of milk, and boiled rice with sugar floating in a bowl of milk, were also good for me). I sighed the sigh of one knowing the routine. Try it. If you don’t like it, we’ll find something else.

I was the first-born child of Jewish artistic and intellectual parents who dressed me in pinafores to play in sandboxes and watched over me as a china ornament. Other Jewish kids were something else.  Boys my age were all bigger and fatter, and the girls had ringlets and bows in their hair. (My straight hair never took to the curling irons that my mother tried endlessly to work.)  I didn’t want to know the boys, especially when their spitballs hit my cheeks, or the girls, whose giggles greeted my tears. The man dressed in black kept his back turned to us while he wrote strange symbols on the blackboard.

I preferred the company of my new boyfriend, the son of the minister who lived across the street in a little house next to the church.  Every morning we walked to first grade together. He told me that I was the prettiest angel in the Christmas pageant that we had performed before our winter vacation. I had begged long and hard to appear in the show, and I was very proud of my paper wings, which had disappeared from my bedroom the day after the show ended. 

I didn’t say so, but I suspected that this Sunday school shul idea had something to do with him, the Christmas pageant, and my performance of “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.” My pouting and my tears ended the Sunday school project but also curtailed my friendship with the minister’s son. Once again I stayed home for my Jewish education, and learned to light the candles on Friday night, sip out of a glass for the Kiddush prayer, and say a prayer over the store bought challah. I accepted my loss of a friendship.

As a shy, quiet child I preferred reading to playing king of the mountain and was left to my own devices after secular school, only to endure my mother’s question when she would occasionally look up from her own book: “So, why don’t you go outside and play with the other kids?” She was less likely to bother me if I was engrossed in The Bible In Pictures, an adult book that I found on my parents library shelves. It had a big, purple cover and was filled with black and white original drawings by the artist Gustave Dore.

The black and white print of “The Creation Of Light” on the first pages, with rays of light shooting out of black, gray clouds, appealed to my sense of mystery.  The lines on the adjacent page– “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth, and the earth was without form and empty…”– were words that also piqued my curiosity.  It was the pictures and the words, not anything religious, which appealed to my imagination in the same way that I could imagine being transported to other countries like Switzerland where I could play with Heidi and Peter. Books were far more reliable friends than kids playing in the schoolyard at recess or on the sidewalk by our apartment house. They ignored me while I hung on the sidelines and observed their actions.

Alone, I was free to imagine. I could pretend to be a famous writer and adventurer. I could imagine a ride on the bus alone, while in real life I sat next to Daddy when we traveled to his office on Saturday.  I could imagine my walk to the library alone, while in real life I held onto my Mother’s hand when we went together after school. Dependency gave me the freedom to wonder about the people who weren’t Jewish and why we weren’t supposed to talk about being Jewish when we were in their company, which seemed to be the majority of people in my school, apartment house, and neighborhood.

When we moved to the suburbs of South Orange, several miles away, again I heard the mantra– It will be good for you — voiced by my parents.  What were they talking about, I wondered, as I played alone or read a book in my own room, a preteen feeling like an outcast?

But then I was delivered to another Jewish class at a new temple that was housed in a mansion. It was a September afternoon, two months after I had been whisked away from our brick apartment house with its cacophony of buses and cars, and plopped into a completely different setting of quiet, tree-lined streets and wide lawns the size of parks where cars barely passed by. 

Chauffeured by my mother, who picked me up in my father’s Buick from my fifth grade class, I was deposited at the door of a castle, or so the mansion looked to me. I walked alone inside and found a room filled with other preteens sitting on chairs that included a protrusion for a desk. I slipped into a chair in the back row.  A woman stood in front of the blackboard and faced us.  On the board behind her were written the words: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But, If I am only for myself, who am I?  If not now, when? Hillel”

I was mesmerized by the words on the board. This was exactly how I felt as the girl who had just shorn her braids and spoke with a voice barely heard. The teacher spent the rest of the term drawing me out so that I learned Hebrew letters, those same symbols I had seen on the blackboard in an earlier classroom, and I learned faster than any of my peers.  The romance of another language, the chance to learn about philosophers like Hillel and to hear stories about mystics in the Kaballah, a favorite topic of the rabbi, piqued my curiosity about Jewishness. It was a far different Jewishness than the one I found at my grandfather’s Seder table, where only Hebrew was spoken and he read for what seemed like hours from the Haggadah. 

Red shoes and a mixer brought out again the mantra–It’ll be good for you.  My mother’s argument was that I needed to meet Jewish boys and girls my age, which was somehow tangled with an unknown future and the possibility of marriage. The red shoes had a square, sturdy heel. They were an attempt at compromise since I wanted Capezio’s, the light pastels with a spool-like heel that I had heard the girls talking about at school. I never wanted to go to the mixer, even though my mother told me it would be an opportunity to mix into my new neighborhood and it could set me on the right path to my future. The only thing good about the mixer that I could see was that it was to be held at the temple in one of the ballrooms of the old mansion, a place that to me held a mystery of bygone years with possible magical powers.  Maybe it would have the energy to transform me into a princess instead of the ugly duckling that I was sure I was, and just maybe there might be a prince.

Wearing stockings for the first time—and pulling at a thread causing a run—was how I entered the room. The boys were dressed in blazers and long pants, and the girls wore colorful, adult looking dresses with Capezio shoes. I stood there in my clunkers, although they were red not brown like my school oxfords, and wore a plaid first-day-of-school dress.

We sat on the floor in a circle to play the first of the mixer games.  Each girl had to put one shoe in the center of the circle, and the boys, one by one, had to find the shoe and its owner. The last shoe of twenty was a red one with a flat heel, not a spool one, and I’m not sure who was more embarrassed—the last boy or me, the last girl.   For the rest of my schooling in that community, I thought of myself as the one-who-stuck-out. Only a handful of Jewish girlfriends, far from the popular clique, saved me from total social annihilation.

Subliminal messages to stay within the tribe followed me into middle school and high school. I only accepted dates with Jewish boys.  Although our tribe was again the minority in the community, I knew my future mission was to marry a Jewish husband after I graduated from college. Listening to our reform rabbi talk about the Kaballah still intrigued me, as did all things magical. Yet being a nonconformist, I wasn’t interested in joining Jewish youth groups. The males I read about weren’t Jewish as they swept through life on battlefields in Europe, safaris in Africa, and farms in Salinas Valley. I wondered about those blond and blue-eyed men who lived outside my world of dark hair and bony noses. 

Yet, I clung to my Jewishness internally as I wandered more into the secular world of theater in New York on Saturdays and into the local town newsroom, never feeling I had quite hidden my heritage enough. In fact, offered the opportunity by my mother one morning to have a “nose job,” the popular cosmetic change in my high school years that would transform Semitic looking girls into pug-nosed peers and make them more popular to boys, I thought about it and announced the next morning that I would take my chances in life as I was, bony nose and all.

I actually heard two messages with that offer. One was to mask at least the visual aspects of being Jewish, and the other was to accept the state of prejudice against Jews.  At the time I was sure of my answer to remain as I had been born and see what would happen in my life. I remember using those words to explain my refusal. I’ve never regretted my decision.

Ronni Miller, author of Dance With The Elephants: Free Your Creativity And Write and Cocoon To Butterfly: A Metamorphosis of Personal Growth Through Expressive Writing, among other published books, is an award winning fiction author and founder and director of Write It Out®, a motivational and expressive writing program for individuals of all ages since 1992.  She teaches and lectures in the US, facilitates writing retreats in Tuscany and Cape Cod, and writes about her Jewish roots, feelings, memories and experiences in published books, short stories, essays, poems and plays for children and adults. In her private practice as a Book Midwife, she helps people birth their books. See www.writeitout.com for more information.

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Filed under American Jewry, Jewish identity